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Basement Insulation – The Evolution of 30 Years of Building Science

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Basement Insulation

Basement insulation, specifically extruded polystyrene (XPS) insulation, is recognized as one of the best basement insulation types to use for residential basement construction.

Dow Chemical invented XPS insulation. It has a closed cell structure and proved to be ideal for use in basement insulation projects. There are no holes or voids that would allow water to penetrate. In fact Dow’s XPS insulation is so waterproof that it is used to make billets for floating docks. Because it has high compressive strength, it will not sag or flatten like fiberglass insulation and will maintain its R-value over time. Homeowners in Canada and the northern tier of states in America that have basements have been benefiting from XPS basement insulation on basement walls and floors for over 30 years now.

Dow warranties the thermal performance of its XPS basement foundation wall insulation for 50 years!

However the installation of basement insulation has evolved over time. Old ways of installing basement insulation diehard and it is amazing to realize that these outmoded installation techniques still occur today.

Basement Foundation Wall Insulation

The way that basement wall insulation has been installed and is still being installed to basement foundation walls is to first tip-up floor assembled dimensional 2’ x 4’ pine lumber studs or even galvanized steel stud framing to the perimeter foundation walls and then nailing the structure into the ceiling floor joists and the concrete floor. This is awkward and intimidating for most DIYers to do.

The use of batt fiberglass in the wall cavities between framing studs with a vapor barrier on the warm side of the insulation is still being used in basement insulation. The problem is that this only insulates between the studs and will trap water and water vapor penetrating the foundation wall. This type of insulation system will absorb and hold water, which reduces insulation performance and can lead to mold growth. If the concrete or block walls leak, or even get damp, the lumber and basement insulation will hold the moisture creating problems with staining, rot and mildew and mold growth.

Rigid XPS basement insulation can be applied to the entire wall providing a continuous layer of thermal, moisture and air barrier protection to increase overall R-value and energy efficiency. XPS basement insulation resists water absorption and does not provide a nutrient source for molds.

Now the application of proven building science has evolved for basement wall insulation with the development of the Barricade system of modular 2’ x 8’ wall panels that integrates XPS basement insulation with an insulation rating of R12 bonded to an engineered wood oriented strand board (OSB) panel that eliminates the need for wall stud framing. Now there is an easy-to-install basement insulation system that saves on installation time for DIYers and contractors, provides a continuous vapor barrier, provides a barrier to moisture penetration and blocks excessive noise. It is the perfect product for basement wall insulation culminating over three decades of building technology evolution.

Industry research has determined that the most efficient way to insulate basement foundations is from the exterior. External insulation not only cuts heat losses, but acts as a second barrier against moisture and freeze thaw action However, owners of older homes that cannot place insulation on the exterior because it is not economically practical can insulate the interior walls to achieve remarkable heat loss savings.

There are several ways to install insulation on the interior using XPS basement insulation but the easiest to use is the Barricade insulated wall panel system.

Heat loss through uninsulated basement walls is a significant energy penalty in heating climates. In addition cool basement walls are undesirable when basements are finished or used for recreation. Insulating basement walls is logical and desirable as long as the walls remain free of moisture problems. Unfortunately, safely insulating basement walls requires consideration of many factors in addition to reducing thermal conductivity across the foundation wall. Moisture dynamics must be considered in detail before insulating a basement wall. Materials used to insulate a basement wall must be selected based on their ability to control the flow of moisture and air as well as heat. XPS insulation has been found to be the best choice for homeowners to install themselves to achieve superior thermal, moisture and air flow barrier performance. Selecting the wrong type of insulation or placing it in the wrong wall assembly often leads to moisture accumulation with subsequent material deterioration and growth of mold.

Basement Insulation
Basement Insulation

What kind of heat loss savings can be expected from applying basement insulation to the interior of basement walls that previously did not have any basement insulation?

As much as one third of the heat lost in a home can be attributed to uninsulated or improperly insulated basement walls. By properly insulating the full height of basement walls with XPS insulation with a product such as BARRICADE basement wall panels combined with the effective air sealing of the sill plate, this heat loss will be reduced considerably.

The amount of estimated savings can be determined by participating in the Home Energy Audit program that is part of the Government of Canada’s Eco ENERGY Retrofit program that will provide a rebate to homeowners that insulate their basement walls.

Basement Subfloors Insulation

For example, old-style basement subfloors are still being built using basement insulation between 2” x 4” dimensional lumber or “sleepers” installed with screws or nails directly to the basement floor. To complete this traditional basement subfloor system, a polyethylene (PE) vapor barrier is loosely laid over the sleepers. Then plywood is fastened to the sleepers with hundreds of wood screws through the PE vapor barrier, making it the plastic equivalent of “Swiss cheese”. This is required to keep the floor from warping so that it stays tight to the floor. This basement insulation subfloor system“works” but it is clunky and is a flawed design. It is at least 2” high, which reduces headroom in the basement, which is usually challenged for height and because the vapor barrier is punctured in hundreds of places it no longer works as a vapor barrier.

The evolution of the basement subfloor insulation system was to first apply rigid XPS basement insulation directly to the concrete floor, which provides a continuous layer of insulation that is not interrupted by floor framing studs. Plywood was then installed on top with adhesives and Tapcon concrete screws were fastened directly into the concrete to keep the plywood from warping. Even this subfloor system was not entirely perfect since it was not friendly for the typical do-it-yourself homeowner (DIYers) who did not have expensive power tools and compressors required to install this basement subfloor insulation system.

Now subfloors with basement insulation have evolved into a system that is easy to install for both contractors and DIYers alike. With insulated and modular subfloor panels, such as the floating Barricade subfloor system, which incorporates R3.2 XPS basement insulation bonded to a 2’ x 2’ dimensionally stable oriented strand board with a tongue and groove edge, installation is straight forward with household tools. This subfloor system does not have to be fastened to the concrete floor because it “floats” and eliminates the use of 2’ x 4’ dimensional lumber. This saves money on material costs, installation time and virtually eliminates mold by removing cellulose in the wood as a food source.

The Barricade subfloor system is only 1-1/8” thick with minimal impact on headroom in the basement.

Barricade’s XPS insulation provides a continuous semi-permeable vapor barrier, which enables water vapor to diffuse harmlessly while at the same time provides a moisture barrier against bulk water to protect the finished basement floor and the furnishings in the room. Every Barricade panel incorporates a perimeter channel to provide an escape route for incidental bulk water so that it will flow to a central drain.

The modular panels have an airtight gasket at the seams to prevent unwanted airflow and should be properly sealed with adhesive caulking or expanding foam insulation to the basement wall insulation panels. In this wayinterior air stays inside the basement where it can me managed properly with fresh airflow management techniques.

As part of sensible fresh air flow management in basements, it is recommended to set your furnace fan to on at all times. In summer use a basement de-humidifier when excess humidity can be a problem. The target humidity levels for optimal comfort is 25-30% In wintertime because of the need to provide heated air, the opposite is the case when humidity may have to be added to interior air for comfort, with the use of a furnace humidifier for example. Encouraging air exchange and stable humidity levels will help maintain a healthy indoor air environment in the basement and home.

The evolution of basement insulation over the past 30 years of building science technology has resulted in products and systems that enable homeowners to successfully provide new comfortable and safe living space in their homes.


‘Best Practices Guide Full Height Basement Insulation’ Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing 2008 (Based on 2006 Ontario Building Code References)

‘Built Wrong from the Start’ Fine Homebuilding May1, 2004 pp 52-57

‘Renovating Your Basement’ Building Science Corporation Research Report 0308 2003 (Revised 2007)

‘Renovating for Energy Savings’ CMHC Oct. 2004

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